Natural gas companies are finding that opening the lines of communication with the communities in which they operate is a way to a more harmonious life.
In the case of XTO, a natural gas company based in Warrendale, the company last year established a community advisory council, said Lorie Jackson, an XTO spokesman.
XTO is a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil working to extract natural gas from Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, including Butler County, as well as the construction of a gas pipeline and a distribution center in Penn Township.
The council’s purpose is to make sure the lines of communication are open between the company and the community, Jackson said.
The 26-member council is made up of elected officials from townships and municipalities where XTO work is taking place, as well as representatives of county and state government agencies, nonprofits and business groups.
Jackson said the group has a set of bylaws that include the following objectives: providing information about XTO’s plans and policies; finding ways for the company and the community to improve communication; addressing issues that affect both the community and industry; and educating company employees about Butler County.
“This is not only good for the community, but is good business sense,” Jackson said. “We want the community to know who we are and what we are doing here, as well as to educate community stakeholders about the natural gas industry and XTO.”
Council members have taken tours of drilling rigs, discussed water issues, been taught fire safety response at Butler County Community College’s fire school and been given an overview of fracking and Marcellus Shale.
In turn, council members say they work to answer questions or concerns community members bring them.
Linda Zerfoss, Penn Township manager, said she believes the council is proving to be a benefit to the township.
“We’ve had the chance to address problems residents have brought to us, like noise from drilling for the pipeline under Route 8, as well as mud that accumulated on the highway.”
Ed Kirkwood, manager for Butler Township, said he agreed to join the council because he wanted to learn more about the natural gas industry. The biggest thing he has been impressed with so far has been the company’s attention to safety.
“What has impressed me is the Nth degree to which XTO goes to protect the environment, putting in efforts to control and contain any spills on drilling sites, employing a safety director who can shut everything down with the pull of a switch, and employing a daily safety checklist.
“There is not a question that we have had that XTO has not asked and answered,” Kirkwood said.
Shell Oil, another global player with new natural gas ties to the county, also is working with expanding community relations and communication.
Scott Scheffler, a Shell communications adviser, said one of the company’s “top operating principles is to listen and communicate with our stakeholders in the communities where we operate. To do this, we have a number of staff and contract positions that are assigned to work in the community.”
Scheffler said community relations representatives work with the public in one-on-one meetings, open houses, and meeting with government officials and landowners. They also help Shell’s social investment activities in the community, such as sponsorships and philanthropic contributions.
Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said these types of councils or committees have been established for decades by the oil and gas industry.
The coalition is a natural gas industry advocacy organization that works on the growth of the industry, including the development of new legislation and community relations.
“These groups allow for positive and open discussions between companies and community stakeholders so that the industry is not being conducted in a vacuum. It gives people a chance to go to the source of information and get answers to their questions,” Windle said.
Jackson said the XTO-Butler County council meets every other month, with the next meeting Feb. 28 at Butler County Community College.